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City of Minneapolis won’t sue to stop use of NFL team name at TCF Bank Stadium

City Attorney Susan Segal
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
City Attorney Susan Segal, left, said Wednesday she thinks the city lacks standing to file a suit, though she admitted the idea was “uncharted territory.”

Those objecting to the use of the term “Redskins” by the Washington, D.C. NFL team wanted the city of Minneapolis to file a lawsuit to block any use of what many consider to be the team's racist nickname and symbols when it visits TCF Bank Stadium next month to play the Minnesota Vikings.

What they got: a strongly worded statement.

City Attorney Susan Segal, responding to a request from city council members to explore the city's legal options on the issue, said Wednesday she thinks the city lacks standing to file a suit, though she admitted the idea was “uncharted territory.”

While the offensive term and symbols could violate the Minneapolis civil rights ordinance and federal civil rights laws, she said, state courts have ruled the city code doesn’t cover the University of Minnesota, where the stadium is located.

Segal said that a suit by the city would also run afoul of federal court rulings that nearly always look unkindly at prior restraint of speech, which is protected by the First Amendment.

“We would like nothing better than to be able to file a lawsuit and help provoke a long-overdue change in the name of this team,” Segal told the council’s Public Safety, Civil Rights and Emergency Management Committee Wednesday. “Unfortunately, I think we have come to the conclusion that the city itself does not have a cause of action against the team that is likely to be successful.”  

Segal agreed with those who say the team’s name it is not only derogatory and offensive but harmful to Native Americans, especially children. She said the NFL is an outlier in defending the use of such nicknames, and that both public and legal pressure on the team is having some effect, specifically citing the decision earlier this year by the U.S. Patent and Trademark to deny trademark protection to the name and logos.

But Segal said she does not believe the city has legal standing to take the University of Minnesota or others to court to force it to block the use of the team’s name and logos in the stadium.

The city, she added, might be “about the worst plaintiff you can have to try to win expansion of the law in this area.” That’s because the city would have to seek an injunction before speech has occurred, triggering longstanding bans on prior restraint of speech by government. (In her slide presentation, Segal referred to the team's name as “R*dskin.”)

After the committee meeting, two Minneapolis council members issued a statement condemning the use of the nickname and logos. “We agree that the continued use of a racial slur as the name of the Washington, D.C. football team is reprehensible and injurious to Indigenous People — especially children — and we agree the name should be changed immediately,” wrote Blong Yang and Cam Gordon. While the city does not have legal jurisdiction to enforce a ban on the use of the name and symbols, the pair said they will continue to speak out against them. “Racial slurs are not welcome in Minneapolis and do not meet our community standards.”

Alan Yelsey
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Alan Yelsey

Alan Yelsey, a member of the National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media, which had urged the city to take legal action, disagreed with Segal’s rationale for not doing so. “They are absolutely wrong and they are purposefully wrong,” Yelsey said. “The Civil Rights Act of 1964 defines what a public accommodation is and it includes a stadium, both public and private.”

He said that law allows injunctions to prevent discrimination in such facilities. “The challenge is for the city to want to do that,” Yelsey said. “If you believe the term ‘Redskins’ is discriminatory, you have all of the legal authority to prohibit it or to sue for damages.”

David Glass, president of the Minneapolis-based NCARSM, said he thinks the city would have acted had the nickname in question offended Hispanics or Jews or Blacks or Asians. “If they used any of those words, they’d have standing. They’d find standing,” Glass said. “I’m disappointed the mayor didn’t step in and give clear direction to the city’s legal officer.”

The coalition is one of the sponsors of a protest rally at the stadium Nov. 2 as well as a series of forums on racism in sports and the impacts of derogatory nicknames and imagery. 

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Comments (8)

Boycott

Why not just boycott the game, TCF, and the advertisers on the TV broadcast?

Twas...

gutless!

Typical..

activist mindset. The only speech they consider "free" speech it that with which they are in agreement with.

This team has been around since the 1930's. Race relations have improved so much in this country that the agitators have to look for something to complain about and someone to shake down.

Have race relations improved so much in this country...

.... that there is no longer room for improvement? That's a pretty ridiculous notion considering recent events in this very country. Not sure what the team having been around since the 30's has to do with anything. The year is now 2014.

The Battle for Civil Rights is Never-Ending

Our culture continues the tradition of dehumanizing indigenous people. Our culture would never, for example, tolerate the "N" word emblazoned in the middle of a stadium, fans wearing blackface, cheerleaders engaging in minstrel shows, and the celebration of the murder and enslavement of their ancestors. We cannot yet see indigenous people as equals. The City of Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota and the State of Minnesota have not lifted one finger to fight against the clear discrimination and institutional racism of the Washington team name and mascot, or the Cleveland baseball name and mascot. The University has a contract that clearly prohibits discrimination and empowers the U to prevent discrimination by canceling the contract or deny access to perpetrators. The City of Minneapolis is fully able to stop discrimination through enforcement of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Minnesota Human Rights Act and its own ordinances. No stadium or arena may discriminate against people on the basis of race, religion, color, gender bias and national origin. Period. The leaders of our City, our State and our University have lost their integrity and refuse to fight for the rights of indigenous people because indigenous people have less power than other groups. It is time for all of us to act - we are all equals. Tell your government leaders to stop the outrage of mascots - it is public funding that supports these stadiums. March on Nov 2.

The City Attorney strikes again !!

This is the second intervention of this officeholder which just curiously happens to steer local government in a direction favorable to pro football and the Vikings, and away from the interests of the public at large.

We all remember how she intervened with her advice to the City Council when it appeared the stadium vote was not going to go the right way in that body. This left us with a legal situation where no one could effectively challenge the stadium legislation due to the intolerable burden of posting millions in bond money as the price of filing suit. Nice.

Maybe she can find work in pro football after her career with the city is over. I'm ready for a new someone in the role of city attorney - someone who prizes the public's interests.

Legalities

I am far from supportive about anything regarding the new stadium, but I think the City Attorney made the correct decision. There are real First Amendment questions involved in barring the use of the name, and the city would have a hard time showing standing. In addition, the authority of the City of Minneapolis to regulate anything done by the University, given the University's special constitutional status.

Proceeding with a lawsuit when the law says otherwise would be the embodiment of bad faith litigation. It's bad enough the taxpayers are footing the bill for Stately Wilf Manor. We shouldn't have to pay the legal bills to defend their racism, too.

Sometimes, the law just isn't there.

Alan,

good post but there a few points I would like to make.

First of all, our culture does tolerate the use of the "N" word by African Americans in rap music.

I don't see anyone celebrating the murder and enslavement of Native Americans.

If there ever was an event that Minnesotans should be ashamed of it is the mass execution of 30+ Native Americans in Mankato following their conviction by a "kangaroo" court. That isn't even taught in the schools today, at least my children didn't know about it.

The best form of protest would be to boycott the Vikings/Redskins game and anything related to the NFL.